A United States think-tank says North Korea has built a secret missile operating base near its border with China that is probably intended to house long-range ballistic missiles.
In a new report on Monday, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said it identified the Hoejung-ni missile operating base by analysing satellite imagery.
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The facility is one of approximately 20 ballistic missile operating bases that North Korea is yet to declare, according to CSIS, and is located in a small, isolated wooded mountain valley in Chagang province, approximately 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from the Chinese border.
“The Hoejung-ni missile operating base will, according to informed sources, likely house a regiment-sized unit equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs),” it said.
“Should operational ICBMs not become available in the near term, it is likely that intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) will be deployed.”
The Washington-based think tank noted North Korea had test fired a Hwasong-12 IRBM on January 30 from Chagang province, where the Hoejung-ni base is located.
Pyongyang has previously said the Hwasong-12 can carry a nuclear warhead and is capable of reaching the US territory of Guam.
CSIS estimates the missile has a range of 4,500 km (2,800 miles).
The January 30 launch was North Korea’s seventh weapons test of the year and marked the first time it had test fired a nuclear-capable missile of that size since 2017.
The weapons launches have raised concern that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might scrap a moratorium on nuclear and long range missile tests that he imposed on his country in 2018 in the wake of an unprecendented summit with former US President Donald Trump.
Those talks broke down in 2019, however, amid differences between Kim and Trump on de-nuclearisation and sanctions relief.
North Korea has since rebuffed calls from the US for fresh talks.
United Nations experts, meanwhile, say North Korea is continuing to develop its nuclear and ballistic missiles in contravention of international sanctions.
Experts say Pyongyang uses illicit money to fund its weapons programmes, including attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges.
CSIS said the Hoejung-ni base does not appear to have been the subject of any denuclearisation negotiations previously conducted between the US and North Korea.
It said construction on the base started almost 20 years ago, suggesting “considerable level of development planning that is rarely appreciated by outside experts and was likely linked to projected ICBM developments and basing needs”.
But the delay in the completion indicates “significant resource constraints”, it added.
Analysis of satellite imagery shows that the facility has two underground facilities, CSIS said, as well as “hardened drive-through missile checkout facilities”, which are sometimes referred to as missile support facilities.
The think tank added that as of January, there was no indication that a missile unit equipped with ICBMs had been deployed to the base.